Walter Benjamin: Awakening from the collective dream

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At the beginning of one chapter in his capital work Arcades Project Walter Benjamin under the letter K in the section on dreams talks about the Copernican turn of historical perception which consists in the following: in space-time time of sleep (Zeitraum) individual consciousness turns more and more to introspection and reflection, while the collective world increasingly sinks into a deep sleep, noting that each historical epoch turns to dreams in its own way. Previously, the point of interest was “what has passed” and the cognitive apparatus focused on it, while today there is a dialectical turn: the “flash of awakened consciousness” has led to politics taking precedence over history; the information we receive from the world has yet to be translated into memory. Historical-collective consciousness has the character of still-unconscious knowledge, and it is precisely this structure of awakening from the collective dream. More precisely, Benjamin does not want to tell us that society can perceive itself only through a collective oneiric imaginary, but that socio-political changes can be understood only in that brief flash of the moment, in the awakening in which e.g. we understand fashion, architecture, painting, photography, film or advertising as the interior consequences of dreamy visions. In the continuation of this chapter, he makes an interesting statement: “the task of childhood is to create a new world within the symbolic space” because children are able to do what adults cannot: to re-recognize the new, or see the unknown in the new (way). Only with such an opinion does a different understanding of the origin of the “world” come from the projection of the aesthetic power of the phantasmagoria of things themselves as objects. The aim of this text is to show the extent to which Benjamin’s reflection on the deep connection between art, politics and technology is a kind of guide and reflective model of understanding how the relationship between traditional art categories and many emerging sciences and technologies is established in the digital age. The theoretical path paved by Benjamin is crucial in understanding techno-culture, which opens up the possibility of constructing new worlds of imagination.

There is no doubt that today in the age of techno-scientific construction of the world – according to the legendary and inaugural Heidegger’s statement that the essence of technology is nothing technical, because it governs the whole set of technical thinking that understands being as the object of objects – with cybernetics it is decisive for understanding today. What this is really about is the techno-scientific construction of “artificial life” from the spirit of biogenetics. In this context, why is Benjamin’s thought indispensable for the analysis of the logic of the information age with the associated digital aesthetics? It is primarily twofold: it is a question of modernity and the connection between art and technology in the modern age. As Žarko Paić convincingly argues in his book The Angel of History and the Messiah of Event, for Benjamin’s technique is not a mere consequence of the economic progress of capitalism resulting from industrial production. “What is uncanny in this turn of power to shape the ‘new world’ is that technique (téchne) is born from the essence of art (poiesis). On the other hand, aesthetics arose from the essence of technique. Its emergence in the new age corresponds to the transformation of the world from the openness of Being to the construction of the subject.” Thus, with aesthetics comes the age of the absolute technical construction of life. Only when this is kept in mind, it becomes clear why Benjamin in the above, short but significant passage, speaks of childhood as a paradigm of creating a new world based on repetition, that is, when in the new one sees something unknown. This is important because the foundations of opinions today are laid as calculations, which has become an analytical plan for governing the world in which the emergence of the “new” (emergencies). This quantitative, calculating character of thought has nothing in common with Benjamin’s conception of the new / modernity, nor with the new as synonymous with unconditional break with tradition as in Badiou’s theology of events, nor with Hanna Arendt’s epochal attempt to open the space of the new age with political anthropology. In order to surpass modernity with its cult of the “new”, philosophy must understand this “new” in a “new” way.

If for Badiou this means that philosophy in its epochal “novelty” must open the possibility to the coming as an opinion that must not be reduced to philosophy of science, political philosophy and philosophical aesthetics, for Benjamin the matter is different: it is basically a question of modernity, as Paić summarizes precisely in the already mentioned book. Now we are coming to the problem of contemporary art: in an epochal attempt to describe the relationship between classical and modern Parisian art in a thousand pages in the Arcades Project, dealing with the decadence of 19th century Paris, the capital of European modernity at the height of its glory, Benjamin thus also detects a reversal in the essence of modernity as substantial to the understanding of contemporary art. Modernity does not arise from the aesthetic or political autonomy of what belongs to the notion of a work of artistic production, but arises from the dialectic of history where art has become inextricably linked to the absolute technical construction of life. Today, man treats everything that is, both the world and himself and his creations, only through technology. Science is not the research and cognition of something that exists as its object independently of it, but it is, in the strictest sense of the word, the production of being as an object. One of the main reasons why Benjamin’s theses are increasingly associated with modern technology as an assembly or dispositive, as Foucault’s terminology puts it, in relation to information technology that creates digital culture is that he is among the first thinkers in the last century who clearly opened up the problem of the relationship between art and technology, in a different way than Heidegger did. If we start from the insight that the disintegration of the aura of a work of art is in fact a transition to a state of immateriality of new media, we have also opened a whole new horizon of thought. In the inaugural essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, he laid the foundations for thinking about aesthetic media and the position of art in the modern, technically marked world, primarily thinking about the relationship between painting, photography and film, while developing the concept of aura in philosophical interpretations of art. The aura of a work of art stems from the connection and relationship of the sacred and the divine with that which is secular. Based on his reflections today we can speak of a work of art in the period of its biocybernetic reproduction. Namely, the technosphere with which the world today becomes a techno-genetic construction of “artificial intelligence” and “artificial life” is a kind of interior reversal of philosophy, because life (bios) in the technosphere is reduced to building the technical power of art-politics in a constellation that has been erased, and that is the connection between society and culture.

Let us return to the original premise that aesthetics basically arose from the essence of technique. Its origin in the 18th century appears in the form of a new philosophical discipline of the metaphysics of the mind, because art necessarily becomes something more than depicting and presenting the existing world. On the contrary, with aesthetics comes the age of the absolute technical construction of life. The ultimate consequence of this today is the overlap of genetic and computer technologies with new forms of speculative capital from cyberspace and biospace (as internal structures of organisms), which has created a new frontier for technological innovation, adaptation and exploitation. It is often said that we live in the posthuman age of cybernetics, which Norbert Wiener, who coined the term, calls “the whole field of control and communication theory, both in machines and in animals.” By the way, that definition emerged only thirteen years after Benjamin’s essay. But why focus here, for example, on Benjamin, and not for example Adorno, who in aesthetic theory rejects the paradigm of mimesis and art as a beautiful illusion, and sees in avant-garde art the critical power of the negation of false reality? Primarily because he himself differed from his own views on aesthetic autonomy and modernism of art in the capitalist society of alienation, thus defining the status of Benjamin’s aesthetics as completely original and different. Unlike Adorno, Benjamin showed in a much more complex and visionary way how the pictorial order of thought on which contemporary art is based develops from the essence of modern technology. This logic takes place within the framework of art-politics-technique, and takes place in the field of the disappearance of the traditional society-culture dichotomy. When it comes to contemporary interpretations, following in the footsteps of Benjamin from a work of art in the period of technical reproduction, Giorgio Agamben in his work The Open: Man and Animal expressed the key idea of ​​biopolitical production of power in the period of the end of modernity. When traditional metaphysical differences between the animal, man, and machine are no longer at work, then “the anthropological machine enters a state of dormancy.”

In a way, it is with the figures of the thought construction of the visually objectified phantasmagoric world of late capitalism that he developed in the Arcades that Benjamin lays the foundations of contemporary art thinking, insisting that reflection in the art medium becomes a new principle of aesthetic reality construction. Of course, this does not mean that his opus is entirely constitutive of contemporary interpretations of concepts such as plurality, difference, identity, body, Other, performance, spectacle, theater, fashion, design, machine and desire. But this indicates that the conceptual apparatus of technical reproducibility of the work of art that he developed is crucial for the reconstruction of the speculative-dialectical and technical-production principle of change of production in the sphere of battle. One of the most important questions posed by the new philosophy of art is: what must be the art of a world alienated from itself, a world that is antagonistic in itself and a broken whole? To this question, Adorno answers that only art that consciously expresses division and discord in the world remains appropriate for this period. Heidegger offers an answer to this same question about the essence of metaphysics as the essence of technique; for him it is first and foremost a question of the fate of the West, but also a question of the truth of art. The traditional categories of European metaphysics fail before the secret of art, and it remains something trans-metaphysical. As placing-oneself-in-the-work of the truth of being, art is available only to such an opinion that leaves the ground of metaphysics and no longer understands “beauty” as the “illusion” of the idea of ​​the absolute, but as the truth of the world in the work itself. It is in this “zest of a historical world” that Benjamin’s interpretative novum lies. Namely, what is in the medium of reflection of immanence, is in the medium of the technical construction of reality as the assembly of the new. It is for this reason that Benjamin, unlike Heidegger, is the key thinker of the modern age of photography and film, and it is photography that he will dedicate some of his most lucid theoretical passages. Film theorist Raymond Bellour observes that “all French thought has been moving between grasp of words and images for half a century”, a pattern he follows in Deleuze, Barthes, and Foucault. Bellour compares this weaving to the “double coil” of signs and sensations that in our time underlie the evolution of new media and new “image types”, so that the dialectic of word-image reappears at the level of the life process itself (in movies such as Blade Runner, Alien, Matrix, Videodrome , Fly, Jurassic Park, Terminator, etc.).

There is no doubt that bio-cybernetic reproduction has replaced Walter Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction as a fundamental technical determinant of our time: if mechanical reproducibility (photography, film) dominated the era of modernism, biocybernetic reproduction, video, digital images, virtual reality, the Internet and the genetic engineering industrialization dominates a period that for lack of a better term has been called postmodern for decades. As Benjamin already saw, art does not only mean traditional arts (painting, sculpture and architecture), but the full range of new technical media (photography, film, radio, television) that began to appear in his time. And the “work” itself is completely dubious as an art object, a medium of art, or as the task to which art should be dedicated. Therefore, based on these observations, speaking of Benjamin W.J.T. Mitchell says that “reproduction and reproducibility now mean something completely different, because the central theme of technology is no longer the ‘mass production’ of goods or the ‘mass reproduction’ of identical images, but the reproductive process of the biological sciences and the production of infinitely adaptable, digitally animated images.” What does it mean when a paradigmatic object on a conveyor belt is no longer a mechanism but a constructed organism, and how does the life of that organism change when the medium in which a certain fusion of digital and analog codes develops? Mitchell answers this question by focusing on the three implications of the new mode of bio-cybernetic reproduction, each of which relates to a corresponding part in Benjamin’s analysis of mechanical reproduction. First, the copy is no longer a worn-out remnant of the original, but in principle represents an improvement on the original; second, the relationship between artist and work is at once more distant and intimate than has ever been possible in the realm of mechanical reproduction; and third, the new temporality, marked by the erosion of events and the deepening of the relevant past, creates a special sense of “accelerated stillness” in our sense of history. Benjamin’s famous argument is that the appearance of photographic copies causes the “decay of the aura” – the loss of the unique presence, authority and mystique of the original object. Biocybernetic reproduction pushes this displacement of the original a step further, reversing the relationship between the copy and the original, so that the copies have even more aura than the original. More precisely, in a world where the very idea of ​​a unique original seems only a nominal fiction, a copy can improve everything that is considered original. For example, digital reproduction of sounds and visual images does not have to entail any shedding of vividness or persuasiveness, but actually enhances everything that the original material went with. Photographs of works of art can be “scraped” to remove errors and dirt, and the work can be restored to its “original” originality. This, of course, would still mean the loss of the aura, which Benjamin associates with the accumulation of history and tradition around a particular object, but if the aura means restoring the original vitality, literally the “life ‘breath’ of the original”, as Mitchell calls it, then digital copy can do more to be original than the original itself.

At one point in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Benjamin says: “The surgeon represents one pole of the order, and the other is the sorcerer. The physician treats by laying his hand on the patient, while the surgeon cuts the patient’s body. The physician and the surgeon relate to each other as a painter and a cameraman.” In other words, contrasting the age of manual and mechanical reproduction with the figures of sorcerers and surgeons, i.e. painters and cameramen, he points to a new paradigm that will become visible in today’s world: the age of bio-cybernetics, i.e. its transformation in the relationship between artists and works, as a new tool and apparatus. Translated into the language of contemporary art, cyber-artist operates simultaneously within closer and more distant relationships with the real. The artist’s relationship to work and bodily reality has thus become more intimate than ever, and at the same time the artist’s subjectivity is scattered and fragmented. The second segment important for the analysis refers to the fact that in the age of biocybernetics, the sense of temporality was primarily transformed. Benjamin wrote his books and essays in the period between the two world wars, in a time of crisis and imminent danger of irreversible disasters and dramatic technical innovations, and we live in a time of constant anxiety. Here we leave the territory of art and enter the realm of Jewish eschatology. It has already been pointed out at the outset that Benjamin’s turn in the essence of modernity is detected as substantial to the understanding of contemporary art. History no longer takes place on the “plane of transcendence”, but everything happens contingently, as a kind of walk into the unknown. Since there is no longer a goal and purpose of history in the Hegelian progress and development of the idea, but in the eternal present of what connects the past and the future, there is a need to establish a world without God. The task of philosophy therefore becomes identical with the “new beginning”, and consequently aesthetic experience transcends (in the sense of Hegel’s Aufhebung) a messianic-theological intervention in the materialist understanding of history. His turn toward political thought boils down to a messianic policy of emancipation, and without a relationship to the essence of messianism in the Jewish understanding of the term, it is impossible to grasp the essence of his political thought. Benjamin, in the context of art, almost uneasily (Unheimlich) predicted that the human race is able to view its own destruction as an aesthetic experience of the first order (remember only apocalyptic films about destruction, or the demolition of the WTC towers on September 11, which one of pioneers in the field of electronic music Karlheinz Stockhausen called “the greatest work of art of all time”, thus causing outrage and controversy around the world).

Walter Benjamin

Any critique of the capitalist mode of production that does not address the corporation as a form of life and a work of art, and the multinational as its habitat, is doomed. As W.J.T. Mitchell, “It’s not just that biotech corporations are rapidly adapting copyrights to the genetic codes of newly devised species of plants, animals and food, or that they will soon be claiming copyrights on human genes and breeding human embryos, but the deeper fact that these corporations and biocybernetic ‘life forms’ themselves, collective organisms that, in order to survive, must destroy or devour their rivals. If cybernetics is the science of numbers and computing, it may be the perfect modus operandi for a new model of corporation based on speculative financial capital.” Did we already entered the era of the so-called transgenetic art as a new art form based on the use of genetic engineering techniques to transfer synthetic genes to a particular organism? From the numerous amount of contemporary literature, only one thing is utterly clear: there is no consensus on the artistic strategies of biocybernetics. This art cannot find its place in the traditional spaces of galleries or museums because of its invisible, often technical content, and the uncertainty of what medium or form is used. Bio-cybernetics has actually found its best medium in film, the ultimate art of the 21st century, where horror and science fiction rule. Is the task of art in the age of bio-cybernetic reproduction to unravel codes and dissolve the illusion of ultimate rule over life? And is it naive or even insane to invent projects that could harness cybernetics to work for human values? Once again, the thesis that in today’s posthuman age a thorough rearticulation of what we mean by humanism and the humanities is needed is crucial. Information has today become the key word for controlling all systems on earth, and since the technical existence of man as a posthuman being (actually: machine / thing) in the form of a cyborg requires a combination of rationality and intuition, it is clear that the advent of cybernetics marked the end of history.

Walter Benjamin concluded his meditation on mechanical reproduction with the specter of mass destruction. But the danger of our time is not in the mass destruction, but in the mass creation of new, increasingly vital images and forms of life, in the virtuality of the posthuman state. Perhaps this moment of “accelerated dormancy in history”, when we feel caught between utopian fantasies of biocybernetics and dystopian realities of biopolitics, between rhetoric about posthuman and real threats to universal human rights, is a moment given to rethink what our lives are really for. In this context, the crucial role is played by the understanding of the “new” which, as already mentioned, is no longer understood from the uncertainty of the future, but from the techno-scientific construction of “artificial life”. More precisely, but ironically, in the cybernetic framework of thought, the “new” does not arise from a break with the continuity of time and transition to a state of reality in terms of modernist “progress” and “development”, but arises from the construction of events and not the openness of battle as such, thus abolishing the millennial philosophical tradition of metaphysical dualism of space and time, that is, Hegelian teleology or Aristotelian understanding of being as presence (ousia). Benjamin sought to think of the relationship between history and the conditions of its possibility by being always opened in its truth as “new” and as “eternal return of the equal”, referring equally explicitly to Nietzsche and Karl Löwith, in the early writings, and later in the Arcades. For him, the messianic event of radical change consists in overcoming the present to become a space of catastrophe, and the future stops in the “eternal now”, that is, in an enigmatic way, the past is understood from the future. From this perspective, Benjamin is the metaphysical regulator of the new discourse in the technical age of the end or death of metaphysics, who, unlike Heidegger, never went beyond the framework or matrix of metaphysics on the way to a radically different origin, because he absorbed all the experiences of modern art, although it is crucial for both of them that, regardless of differences in approach, that they understand the essence of metaphysics as the essence of technology. Benjamin’s attempt to “save” art from the technical construction of the world as homelessness or progress as catastrophe is not essentially a heroic undertaking. There is nothing pathetic or messianic in it, nor is it a mere language game. The event of the loss of the aura of a work of art by entering the period of technical reproduction is not basically an artistic or “technical” but an onto-theological problem, and moreover a fundamental problem of modernity in which metaphysics ends with entering the information age.

Author Profile
Tonči Valentić

Tonći Valentić is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Textile Technology, Department of Fashion Design, the University of Zagreb, where he teaches courses in Media Theory, Sociology of Culture, Semiotics of Fashion, and Cultural Anthropology. He received his Ph.d. in Sociology from University of Ljubljana. He contributes regularly to a variety of Croatian and foreign cultural magazines, as well as author and translator. His publications include: Multiple Modernities (2006), Camera Abscondita: Essays on Ontology of Photography (2013), Archipelago of Contemporary Philosophy (2018) and Media Construction of Balkanism (2021).